NILKANTH - THE ENIGMA
NILKANTH IS ONE of the most accessible peaks in the Himalaya and it has been claimed, one of the most beautiful. Its summit lies only nine kilometres from the town of Badrinath which is serviced by a tarred road (an important destination for the Hindu pilgrim) yet the height difference between Badrinath and the summit of Nilkanth is 3500 m! Since it was first seriously attempted by Frank Smythe in 1937 it has received around a dozen attempts yet only two claimed ascents; the first of which (1961) is now widely discredited. So what is it about this mountain, named after Shiva the destroyer, that has attracted so much interest yet has proved so difficult a challenge? It is without doubt a striking, relatively isolated peak and one that has 'climb me' written all over it! However, for all its accessibility and relatively modest altitude, Nilkanth is a mountain with formidable defences. Its ridges are Idng, often pinnacled and loose, its faces steep, seracced and avalanche prone and it's isolated position encouraging a localised weather system. In recent years it has been designated a restricted peak, with access by non-Indian expeditions limited to a southerly approach and that only after payment of hefty not to say unreasonable peak fee of 3000 US $!
The one accepted ascent of Nilkanth (although details of this event .ire sparse) was by an Indo-Tibetan Border Police team in 1974. Approaching from the Satopanth Bank, they ascended the north face encountering difficult and dangerous snow conditions en route. Since this expedition, all subsequent attempts on Nilkanth have been from the south.
Nilkanth has four main ridges and four main faces but as my iletailed knowledge is confined to the southerly approach, I will restrict my comments to this, other than to say that from distant inspection
the east face looks vast and dangerous (primarily snow and ice with rock bands and serious avalanche potential) and the northeast ridge, running up from the col between Narayan Parbat and Nilkanth, problematic of access from the east, but once gained, an excellent objective. The south side ofcNilkanth consists of two ridge lines enclosing the true south face. The lower part of this face is a complex jumble of rock and ice with major objective dangers from rockfall and calving ice blocks from its hanging glacier. It would neither be an attractive nor sensible approach to the upper reaches of the mountain. The west side of the south face is bounded by a superb rock ridge running almost to the summit of the mountain. Access to the initial, near level section of this ridge, is barred by a massive, rusty wall (loose rock?) but if this could be overcome, the southwest ridge of Nilkanth should give a magnificent, difficult, yet relatively safe 1600 m climb on grey granite, similar in appearance to the rock of the Piz Badile area of the Bregalia Alps.
The southeast ridge, attempted now by over half a dozen expeditions, is not such an attractive objective as the southwest ridge. However, it does perhaps present the mountain's greatest challenge and an exercise in very committing Himalayan Alpinism.
So what of our own performance on the southeast ridge? As a four man team the choice of Nilkanth was made at short notice after permission to climb Panch Chuli II from the east had been refused. We were however armed with a comprehensive knowledge of previous expedition activity on the ridge thanks to the generous help of Roy Lindsey whose team had attempted it in 1990.1
Approaching via the Khirao ganga, base camp, sited on a level shelf to the east of an area of huge boulders and pinnacles at 4400 m, was established, on 11 October in a snowstorm. The ascent of steep grass and a boulder field took us to an advanced base camp (on snow) at a height of 5000 m, below the steep rusty wall which flanks the southwest side of the initial section of the southeast ridge. The remains of a small glacier lay west of the camp (presumably the one mentioned by Smythe). Above this mini glacier lies an obvious pointed rock tower (with gullies either side of it). To the northwest of this feature a very shattered rock wall holding much unstable scree gave access to the ridge by following the general line of a pale band of rock until a short snow gully cut up onto the crest. From a large spike of pale rock, where the gully meets the ridge crest, three easy mixed pitches along a classic Alpine ridge led to its abutment with the foot of the 1st Pinnacle. To the east of the abutment lies a monolithic buttress with a steep open gully on its left. We climbed the left side of the open gully via cracks and ledges (50 m IV, old fixed rope) as the right side, although appearing easier, was very loose. A further pitch on mixed ground led to a rightwards traverse along a snow covered shelf. Another one and half pitches of broken snow covered ground led to the base of a steep rock barrier.
This barrier has two lines of weakness, the left, a formidable hanging groove, the right, an easier angled shattered groove. The left hand groove proved to be the safer line and easier than appearances would suggest (40 m IV, old fixed rope). The right hand groove is the outfall of a scree scoop above. 60 m of scrambling over very unstable ground took us to a small col between the rock towers of the 1st Pinnacle on the left and Point Alison on the right. The steep ice gully dropping from the col was abseiled for 40 m (old fixed rope) then a mixed traverse was made to gain a small snow col directly below Point Alison. After some snow levelling this provided a perfect site for one bivi tent.
A short level section of ridge ran up into a wide area of shattered rock which was climbed by a wide scree filled groove on the right to gain a little saddle. From this point a traverse right on steep soft snow linked into another wide, loose groove leading via short rock steps to two in-situ pegs at the top (old fixed rope). Moving out of the groove we gained a small snow basin flanked by a rock edge on the left and a snow arete on the right. The snow in this basin proved desperately unconsolidated and it took over an hour to climb a 60 m section close to the rock edge, swimming up thigh deep snow lying on rock slabs to a 'thank god' belay and ledge. One tent was later pitched at this point. Thankfully firmer snow led up on the right to the steepening of the summit tower of the 2nd Pinnacle. A tricky rightward traverse, (Scottish II/III) allowed an exposed descent down the arete to gain a big tablet of rock at the small col between the 2nd and 3rd Pinnacles.
In search of Smythe's by-pass ledge a line was first attempted on the west flank of the 3rd Pinnacle. This involved a promising start on steep sound rock to gain a descending, narrowing, slab ramp ending in a cul-de-sac of overhanging loose flakes. These were surmounted in a breath holding mode but the ground beyond did not give cause for optimism and a dignified retreat was made. The second foray up a short wide crack left of the arete gave some encouragement, leading to a ledge running out onto the more wintry east flank of the pinnacle. Needless to say this also proved to be bad news but in frustration a route was forced across it by dint of climbing more in keeping with a Scottish grade VI than the Himalaya. The most memorable sequence involved torquing off two axe tips, mantleshelving onto the same and then dynoing for a flat hold! The crest regained, an easy traverse led to a short descent onto the commodious snow col between the 3rd and 4th Pinnacles. The lower flank of the 4th Pinnacle looked slabby but fairly broken and not a major obstacle. However this proved to be our high point (C 5600 m). The following day another line was climbed on 3rd Pinnacle, on the left of the arete, up a wall, a chimney then a suicidal zig-zag traverse under, around and over evil piles of balanced blocks, 65 m V+, following roughly the line of the abseil descent of the previous day.
Whilst sitting, firmly lashed to a big flake on the top of the 3rd Pinnade the early afternoon cloud drew aside like a stage curtain to reveal my first really good view of the summit ice pyramid of Nilkanth, defended by a continuous slabby 300 m high rock barrier with a base at 6000 m. I gazed in awe! It looked massive even at a distance of nearly two kilometres.
I've been mountaineering for over twenty five years and if I've learnt anything during this time it is to listen attentively to my inner voice. On the top of the 3rd Pinnade it spoke to me very clearly. It said 'get down'. I abseiled the pitch and voiced this message to Dave and Matt. They didn't argue. We went down, stripping the mountain the following day in a snowstorm.
No article about Nilkanth would be complete without a reappraisal of the achievement of Frank Smythe and the enigmatic Peter on the southeast ridge in 1937 (see chapter 22 in The Valley of Flowers.) Was it a piece of very bold and futuristic dimbing or, as some subsequent expeditions to the mountain maintain, a flight of fancy? Although Smythes' description of the dimb is, at times, difficult to relate to the topography of the southeast ridge, there are enough identifiable references to confirm that he had a fair knowledge of this complex feature. However, he dismisses the technical difficulty and looseness of much of the ridge, makes no mention of extensive snow covered sections (surely there would have been a lot of snow about high on the ridge in late August) and doesn't mention any abseil descents. On the positive side Smythe's description of 'a thin and elegant pinnade with sheer sides falling into unknown depths___which proved to be more a step on the ridge than an isolated point' perfectly fits the 3rd Pinnade, although if this was his idea of perfect granite ('the best that Chamonix can muster') I wouldn't like to climb on what he would consider to be poor rock!
If Frank and Peter did indeed reach the crest of the 4th Pinnacle as can be inferred from his narrative and his description of their final view towards the great rock barrier and the summit snow and ice slopes of Nilkanth, then one can only marvel at their route finding, the speed of their ascent, their relative indifference to loose rock and their technical proficiency. Truly mountaineers well ahead of their time!
The veracity of Smythe's attempt will probably never be absolutely confirmed and indeed fits in well with the general mountaineering history of Nilkanth, with much doubt being cast on other expedition claims. I prefer to believe that Smythe did indeed reach the 4th Pinnade, further than any other expedition has yet reached and that seismic activity has since altered the character of the ridge (there was a magnitude 7 earthquake in 1991 in this region).
The mysteries surrounding Nilkanth will perhaps never be dispelled but it is certain that the 'Queen of the Garhwal' will continue to attract the admiring gaze of pilgrim and tourist alike, will continue to tempt the mountaineer with its great ridges and faces and will forever be regarded as one of the Himalaya's most beautiful and challenging mountains.
Members: Graham Little (leader), Dave Saddler, Matt and Gareth Yardley.
Summary: An attempt on the southeast ridge of Nilkanth (6596 m), by a team of Scottish mountaineers in October 1992.